The Post-Journal

Thomas The Pinch Hitter

Former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas came through in the clutch for the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame on Monday.

The guest speaker at the organization’s induction dinner that night was supposed to be former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler, who lives in Mobile, Ala. He was planning to fly from Atlanta on Monday morning, but on Sunday night inclement weather hit the area. Around 10:30 p.m. induction dinner chairman Chip Johnson was informed it wasn’t looking good for Stabler to arrive, but more would be known in the morning.

On Monday morning, Atlanta still had poor weather, mainly sleet, and flights were being cancelled. At about 6:30 a.m., Johnson was informed Stabler was trapped in the “sunny south” while here in the snowbelt the weather was fine.

So Johnson was faced with scrambling to find another speaker. This is the 20th year Johnson has been the induction dinner chairman in charge of speakers and he’s had some challenges, such as one year when there was still no speaker two weeks before the event. This time the dinner was only hours away.

Fortunately, the contact who was handling the arrangements for Stabler also had Thomas as a client. By 8:30 a.m., Thomas was on board to speak at the dinner. So the guest speaker went from being a former NFL quarterback to a Hall of Fame NFL running back.

Not bad for a pinch-hitter.

But this pinch-hitter did not just make an appearance at the plate and return to the bench.

Filling in at the last minute might lead to the speaker being less than enthusiastic, but that wasn’t Thomas. He signed endless autographs during the hospitality hour before the induction dinner. After the dinner was served, the five new inductees were honored and it was obvious Thomas had paid attention to what was happening. When it was finally his turn to speak and wrap up the evening, Thomas made reference to each inductee and made off-the-cuff remarks, which also described his talk.

There was no reading from a prepared and dog-eared banquet speech that he had used over and over.

A good case of that happening was many years ago when former Post-Journal sports editor Frank Hyde was honored and the guest speaker was a very prominent retired baseball player who would become a hall of famer. When he spoke, he started off by saying how pleased he was to be there to honor Frank Hyde. Then he tore into his prepared speech which had probably been heard at countless service club dinners, youth sports banquets and who knows what else.

It even featured the line about being in the field when his team was one out away from winning the World Series and his only thought was, “Please don’t hit the ball to me!”

How many times have other major leaguers used that same line?

Too many.

When the future hall of famer finished, he said, “Once again, it’s been a pleasure to be here to honor (and he filled in the blank) Frank Hyde.” Then he sat down and probably looked at his check.

The “lesser” guest speaker for that program was an active professional athlete who appeared before the main speaker. A week before he had called The Post-Journal to get some background information about Hyde. Then when he spoke, he related his talk to the person who was being honored.

That just shows that when you sign guest speakers for any event, you win a few and lose a few. Fortunately, the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame has come up a winner most of the time.

At the first-ever induction dinner at the Red Coach Inn in 1982, one of the guest speakers was Jim Fanning, who was the general manager of the Montreal Expos. However, he was not only the general manager, but he had also moved to the dugout and managed the team at the end of the 1981 season and was going to do so again in 1982.

The induction dinner was on Feb, 8, but on Feb. 7 Fanning was in Germany and returned that night to Montreal where he had plenty of work to catch up on before heading to spring training later in the week. Fanning could have easily called a Hall of Fame representative, explained his situation and said he would be unable to attend the induction dinner. And everyone would have understood.

But no phone call was made and Fanning was at the Red Coach Inn for the induction dinner.

By the way, he wasn’t paid and didn’t want to be.

The other guest speaker at the first induction dinner was former Cleveland Browns tackle and place kicker Lou Groza, who also appeared for no fee.

As the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame inductions dinner has continued for now 29 years, there were few other past guest speakers who didn’t mind going the extra mile such as Bill White, Tommy John and Jim Kelly to name a few.

Sure, there have been numerous speakers who took the money and ran. And some were literally running out the door right after those in attendance were thanked for coming. In contrast, Johnson mentioned that Monday night Thomas was almost the last person to leave.

So what had appeared to be a stressful day for the induction dinner chairman ended up being a bit less stressful.

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.